Night Watch

Day Twenty Seven of the 2010 Silver Shamrock Happy Halloween Countdown!

Happy Halloween Countdown Day Twenty Seven

Night Watch

Based on the 1972 play  by Lucille Fletcher of the same name, Night Watch is one of those movies that I saw as a child, of which I carried only vague and horrible impressions and not much else.  Still, it stuck with me over the years, like some half remembered nightmares that won’t entirely go away once the sun is up; the creepiness amplified due to the fact that I couldn’t remember the title ( did I really see it?) and that the movie itself faded into obscurity.  All I remembered were ill-defined nightmarish images of a hospital and that the movie featured a woman who, looking through her window across the garden into the window of the abandoned house next door, saw something that scared her badly.  It’s not much to work with . . .  the occasional attempt to hunt it down using Google or IMDB always ended in failure.

The other day, I’m reading Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, his long, long ramble of a book about horror films from 1950 – 1980 or so (it’s highly entertaining).  In the book he makes a list of horror film plots, only  condensed to a sentence of two; he then makes a game of it.  Any true horror fan should know the title of the film that goes with each of the plots on the list.  King helpfully included the answers on the next page.   Plot number eleven he described as: Once upon a time there was an American lady living in London whose sanity was under some question.  She thought that she saw a murder in the old boarded-up house next door. I think that we have a winner!  I turned the page to see what the title was for number eleven.  Night Watch.  The movie I’ve been trying to find all these years must be Night Watch.  Once I got home, I looked it up on IMDB.  It was made in 1973, which is exactly the right point in time and the plot description echoed Steven King’s.  The only thing left to do was to watch it.

Night Watch starts a little slow.  We are introduced to Ellen (Elizabeth Taylor) and John (Laurence Harvey) Wheeler, also Ellen’s best friend Billie (Sarah Cooke), who is staying with them.  We also meet the Wheeler’s neighbor, Appleby, whose family once owned the Wheeler’s house, but due to circumstances had to sell it and move to the guest house.  Across the Wheeler’s garden, on the other side, is a large boarded-up house; the owners are supposed to be away in South Africa.

It the first Act we get to know the characters a bit.  Ellen is a neurotic upper-class housewife who drinks and pops pills.  Though she’s all smiles and cheer, just underneath the surface, she is an obviously troubled and unhappy woman. I’m thinking, well,  it’ s Liz Taylor and she’s just playing herself. John is old money lost, new money found, and he’s embarrassed by it.  Billie likes to have affairs with married men, preferring to rent broke-in models rather than buy.   She is facing middle-age seems to be thinking about the long game.

Act One is stiff, recalling the stagey acting style on an earlier era.  Some of the most florid dialogue I’ve ever heard is delivered here.

There is a massive thunderstorm which keeps Ellen awake. John joins her.  They rail off some of  that dripping  “Oh, John! Oh, Marsha!” stuff, before John exits stage left to go find some drinks.  Ellen wanders over to the window to watch the storm.  Across the garden, the shutters of a window opposite  Ellen’s  has blown open and  is swinging wildly. Ellen peers at the window. In the lightning flashes she catches sight of something.  She looks again, at first in disbelief, then in terror.  In the open window of the other house, seated in a wingback chair, is a dead man, his eyes staring blankly into the darkness and his throat cut open, blood fanning down from the wound, covering his chest.  She screams!  John hurries back.  Ellen, now hysterical, starts screaming about the murdered dead guy, demanding that the police be called.  John looks out the window to see the shutters  secured and nothing is amiss.  He tries to cool Ellen out, but she is having none of it.  John calls the police, who interview Ellen and search the old house, finding nothing.

In Act Two, Ellen becomes progressively more and more unstable.  She’s harassing the police to investigate the murder.  She’s raging at John and Billie.  She is also having nightmarish visions about a morgue.  This part of the movie is much improved, with a more contemporary style of acting and dialogue that, at the very least, isn’t a distracting shade of purple.  We start getting an idea that maybe things aren’t as they seem.  Maybe somebody is pushing Ellen over the edge.

In Act Three, we go into high gear.  Director Brian Hutton throws everything and the kitchen sink at us here, with nightmarish imagery galore delivered at a fast pace, topped off with some serious acting by Taylor.

It’s easy, especially for anyone over the age of thirty-five or so, to think of Liz Taylor as a has-been starlet, who traded on her good looks, at least early in her career.  In her time Elizabeth Taylor was hottness deluxe.  Most of today’s sexy stars are skeezy skanks compared to Taylor in her prime.  She became more famous, as time went on,  for spending most of her life dabbling in failed marriages and tabloid worthy weirdness.  By the time Night Watch was made, Taylor, only forty or so years-old, was already starting to look worn.  Night Watch, it could be argued, was the final theatrical release that could be called an Elizabeth Taylor film.  When we get to the final Act of the movie, Taylor pulls out all the stops, delivering a truly frightening performance.

Night Watch is more than a bit dated.   The Wheelers, depicted as a very modern and stylish couple, makes it seem even more so.  They are creatures of their time.   Also, the music is terrible, especially the end credits.

Night Watch is a chilling look at madness and murder, with the imagery of half-remembered nightmares.

The WTF Moment of the Film: John Wheeler, the elegant City gentleman comes into his office and picks up a folder from his secretary’s desk.

Secretary (laughing): What have you been up to?
John Wheeler (smoothly): Raping secretaries.

Elizabeth Taylor
Laurence Harvey
Billie Whitelaw

Brian G. Hutton

Tony Williamson

Three out of five Vincents

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